The Importance of Knowing your Clients’ Motivations. Part 2 of 2.

By Andrew Telfer

International Educator for upcoming NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist Course

We finished part one’s article by introducing the concept of internal and external motivation in clients.  We discussed how some people are motivated by external (extrinsic) factors like fame, parental expectations or money while others are motivated by internal (intrinsic) factors like enjoyment, self satisfaction or love of the process.

The question is, can we change client’s focus of motivation over time? There is lots of research to suggest that too much focus on external rewards can shift subject’s motivators extrinsically. (Gagné & Deci 2005) For example, if you paid your client $100 every time they won a competition, they might stop enjoying the sport as they begin to focus more and more on the monetary reward. (Heider 1958). Similar trends have been observed in parenting, where praising the process of effort seems to build more intrinsic motivation than does rewarding successes. Can we take externally motivated clients and give them more autonomy?

Deci’s Self-Determination Theory makes the distinction between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation.  Being intrinsically/externally motivated isn’t a binary category. Deci identified that there is a scale of extrinsic motivation from completely externally controlled motivation to largely autonomous, essentially intrinsically motivated actions. (See Figure 1) Clients want to feel autonomous and competent.  As a trainer you can help them by gradually including them more in the planning and programming process. If clients know why they’re doing what they’re doing and have some input in their journey, their intrinsic motivation can go up. Deci wrote,

people need to feel autonomous and competent, …factors that promote feelings of autonomy and competence enhance intrinsic motivation, whereas factors that diminish these feelings undermine intrinsic motivation, leaving people either controlled by contingencies or amotivated.”(Gagné & Deci 2005)


As a coach or trainer, it’s really your duty create as much intrinsic motivation as possible. Clients who care more are willing to work harder and more consistently. Once you create buy in, clients are more committed to learning how to do exercises properly and to work at a higher intensity.


Figure 1: Regulation, motivation and autonomy

As we can see from Figure 1, in order to instill a sense of autonomy, clients require coherence amongst values and regulations. Essentially we, as coaches need to identify a “why” for our clients. Everything we do for our clients should be designed around achieving their goals.  A more updated synthesis of some of Deci’s ideas can be found in the work of Daniel Pink. He’s done a number of high level talkson the subject if you’d like to delve deeper.


Figure 2: Pink’s model for Drive includes Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Pink suggests that in order to create motivation or “drive” participants need a sense of autonomy, a sense of mastery and a sense of purpose. By autonomy, Pink explains that participants are encouraged to take ownership of their development. With mastery, participants are given tools to continuously improve their skills. Finally, with purpose, participants need to understand that they are progressing towards something bigger.  Your duty as a trainer is to construct an environment where you develop these factors in your own clients.

How do we apply this in real life? Using Pink’s model let’s look at examples for each factor:

Factors for “Drive’ Example
Purpose: Identify real world goals tied to the larger world. For CrossFit athletes, I plan around CrossFit Throwdowns. Consider signing up for Powerlift meets, Adventure Races, Strongman Competitions, Races or other competitions. I think it helps to work under international organizations like IPF, CrossFit, Ironman, Spartan or other bodies with a worldwide population.
Mastery: As clients gain experience, demonstrate their progress by testing and retesting, compare old logs with current abilities, compare old videos etc. Some clients may begin to show interest in more complex movements like Olympic lifts.
Autonomy: Include your clients in the planning of their programs. Clarify goals, explain why you’re using specific exercises or intensities. As clients become more advanced their interest may increase.


If you’re interested in learning more about client motivation, consider reading the Psychology chapter in the CSCS manual, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, or join me for the 4-day intensive Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist Course at Fit Singapore.